Religious persecution bill gains committee approval

WASHINGTON (BP) -- Legislation to aid persecuted religious adherents overseas gained overwhelming approval from a congressional committee despite continued opposition from the Clinton administration.

The House of Representatives International Relations Committee voted 31-5 in favor of the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act March 25. The hefty margin came, however, after supporters made another significant change in response to criticism and after another bill targeting religious persecution was unveiled.

Before committee action, Rep. Frank Wolf, R. -Va., author of the bill, already had agreed to a revised version that moved the office of religious persecution monitoring from the White House to the State Department and expanded the president's authority to waive the bill's penalties.

Before the panel's final vote, Rep. Chris Smith, R. -N.J., the bill's leading advocate on the committee, offered an amendment giving the secretary of state, instead of the director of the office of religious persecution monitoring, the authority to determine whether a country has committed a violation. The amendment also eliminated the names of countries cited as examples of those in which persecution is being committed. The committee approved the amendment.

Despite the latest changes, proponents of the bill remained pleased with the result.

"This bill will help a lot of people," Wolf said after adoption of the Smith amendment. "Equally important, it will keep a lot of people" from being persecuted.

Southern Baptist Convention spokesman Will Dodson called the committee's action a "major step forward."

"This indicates the tremendous momentum which this effort has gathered," said Dodson, public policy director of the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "This momentum is due in large part to the bill itself, which has served as an important vehicle in the effort to elevate religious freedom as a critical element of America's foreign policy. It was very evident in the mark-up that the committee was determined to produce legislation.

"Enough cannot be said about the leadership of Congressman Wolf on behalf of both the bill itself and the larger effort to alleviate the suffering of those souls around the globe who are being persecuted or who live under the threat of persecution."

Before the final vote, State Department spokeswoman Barbara Larkin said the changes are major improvements but "do not satisfy all our concerns. We would continue to oppose it in its present form."

Larkin, assistant secretary for legislative affairs, called the bill's "one-size-fits-all" approach a problem for the administration. The legislation calls for prescribed sanctions to be enforced if any government is found guilty of persecuting religious adherents in a widespread manner or of failing to attempt to stop persecution. The president can waive the sanctions because of a national security interest for the United States or if doing so would further the bill's purposes.

When asked by a committee member if President Clinton would veto the bill, Larkin said she could not say.

Prior to the final vote, a Democratic leader on the committee, Rep. Tom Lantos of California, urged approval. While he had concerns about the bill, rejecting it "would be sending the wrong message," Lantos said.

Seventeen Republicans and 14 Democrats voted in favor, while two Republicans and three Democrats opposed the bill.

Before the bill goes to the House floor, the Judiciary Committee and Banking and Financial Services Committee also could make changes because it falls under their jurisdiction as well.

If Wolf's bill reaches the Senate, where Sen. Arlen Specter, R. -Pa., is the prime sponsor, it may face some competition from a new piece of legislation. The day after the House International Relations Committee's action, the International Religious Freedom Act was introduced in the Senate.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Don Nickles, R. -Okla., takes a different approach to the problem of religious persecution. It would place in the State Department an office on international religious freedom headed by an ambassador at large. It also would establish a commission on international religious persecution, with two members appointed by the president, two by the president pro tem of the Senate and two by the speaker of the House. Unlike the Wolf-Specter bill, it would provide the president with more options in taking action against guilty governments.

In the House International Relations Committee March 25, Rep. Kevin Brady, R. -Texas, attempted to substitute a version of the Nickles proposal for the revised Wolf bill. After parliamentary wrangling and a three-hour recess, Brady withdrew his bill.

It is possible any version that gains Senate approval may more closely resemble Nickles' bill than the Wolf-Specter proposal. Some House International Relations Committee members predicted the legislation would end up in a conference committee for differences to be worked out.

In addition to the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, organizations endorsing the Wolf-Specter bill include the National Association of Evangelicals, U.S. Catholic Conference, Family Research Council, Amnesty International, Christian Coalition, National Jewish Coalition and International Campaign for Tibet.

Those cited most frequently as countries where religious persecution persists include China, Sudan, Vietnam, Iran, Cuba, Pakistan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Laos and Burma.

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